A Breastfeeding Trauma Survivor
By Asha Crocker
*Please be warned, there may be some triggering parts to my story as well as some triggering pictures.
My wish is that by sharing my experience and journey, I can give hope and support to another breastfeeding parent going through similar, and perhaps give them the light they need to see through the darkness and the strength to keep going.
E was born 'unexpectedly' at 37 weeks. I certainly wasn’t prepared for an earlier-than-expected birth and I had only just packed my hospital bag, literally just a few days before. We had even collected our wedding photos the day that I was clearly in pre-labour. Life was going on as usual with me in complete denial. Gosh I was feeling like crap!
My waters started to break and trickle, along with period-like cramping contractions around 12am. After a bath (yup, I shaved my legs between contractions too- I shan’t be bothering this time!) and after A (hubby) packed the car up and spent an age trying to do the car seat, I decided that it was time to go to the MLU around 4am and he was born just 4 hours later at 8:18am. I was hoping for him to be at least overdue, because being a teacher, I wanted and planned for a September baby so I could make full use of the summer holidays and not have a summer-born child. It didn't happen! We had a perfect water birth. He arrived in the middle of the August heatwave in 2013; he was small but not dinky, weighing just 6lb11oz.
We had a little bit of skin to skin and I tried to get him to breastfeed. As a first time mum, I soaked up all the stories that breastfeeding hurts to begin with, so I didn’t know any better. It hurt. A lot. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I had no idea how to attach him, other than what it looked like in pictures that I’d seen in baby books and magazines. Everything I knew about breastfeeding was from two piddly pages in “Your Pregnancy: Day by Day”. I can’t even remember how often he tried to feed on the first day, I just remember that he slept a lot.
We stayed in hospital overnight as I wasn't happy with his feeding and refused to go home. A wasn’t allowed to stay with me, so he went home to sleep. I didn’t sleep a wink and kept staring at my little bundle next to me. Why didn’t I pick him up and have cuddles? As a first time mum, I didn’t know that *I was allowed to*. Yep, that’s right. Allowed to pick my own son up from the clear plastic box he was housed in, that created a physical barrier to us connecting with each other.
When I did attempt to feed him, the pain didn't improve. The Maternity Care Assistant at 2am helped me to hand express some colostrum on to my nipple to try and entice him to feed and when that didn’t work, she then tried shaping my breast and literally shoving him on, but even with her help, it wasn’t great. She was the only one that tried to give me practical support. Every other midwife I saw during the day after he was born said his latch looked fine, his nappies were wet and he was passing lots of meconium and so they left after a couple of checks. No one spent more than 5 minutes with me. We were discharged home in the afternoon on the second day.
E continued to sleep a lot and we still had to wake him up for feeds and each feed was making me more and more sore. I was absolutely physically and emotionally exhausted too, after getting no sleep the night before and trying so hard to feed E. Day 3 and my boobs were rock hard and milk was “in”. I got no relief from my sore and hard lumpy breasts after feeding and E found it increasingly difficult to attach. E didn't seem to take much milk as he'd only feed for a few minutes, sometimes for as little as 2 minutes and then quickly fell asleep. These short feeds really panicked me and made me anxious.
It wasn't just the “usual” discomfort I experienced; it was pinching, it was fire, it was like sandpaper rubbing on my nipples. They were compressed and went white. Somehow, my gut knew that E was supposed to feed more often and for longer than he was, but he didn't. He was often asleep and had to be woken for feeds and I was told by midwives at the hospital that lots of sleep was normal after birth, so I tried not to worry.
My nipples were starting to crack, bleed and stick to the breast pads; I cried and curled my toes with every feed. The pain was excruciating, like shards of glass were passing through my nipples. The community midwife on day 3 visit said E was starting to look jaundiced. She tried to reassure me that it was common for breastfed babies, but of course I had to Dr Google search it.
We ended up being referred to hospital the next day as he was starting to get very yellow. For four long days, we endured trips to and from the hospital, with lots of waiting around, being told that he needed more milk, yet *no one* was helping me to breastfeed. E being held down by two nurses and me, to draw blood for tests, which made breastfeeding even harder because he didn’t want to latch after being so distressed. This, I think, was the point in which was the start of my traumatic journey with breastfeeding. My little boy being held down by nurses and me, him screaming his lungs out as they tried to find a viable vein to take his blood. I still have nightmares about this now, 6 years later. Only in my nightmares, they couldn’t find any veins to poke and the screaming got worse, he got worse and extremely ill to the point we didn’t bring him home alive...
I will never forget how that experience made me feel: I felt like it was ALL MY FAULT. I was starving him, I was making him ill, that I was already failing at being his mum at just 4 days in. That I was SELFISH for wanting to feed him from me. I was a FAILURE. I shouldn’t have had a baby because I couldn’t feed him properly myself or look after him well enough so he didn’t get ill. I didn’t DESERVE to be his mum. The dark, negative, self-depreciating thoughts kept coming and was beginning to drown me.
We were told by the consultant paediatrician to top E up with formula to expel the bilirubin faster, yet not ONE person told me or showed me how to express or pump for him and use my breast milk instead. I had milk literally pouring out of my boobs, I was sore and engorged, yet I was giving him formula on the advice of the doctor.
Days stuck in hospital meant I did a lot of Facebook, which meant I joined a few online breastfeeding support groups and did *so. much. Googling* that I’m sure I read literally everything that there was to know about breastfeeding and jaundice. There was so much conflicting “advice” and I didn’t know which sites to trust... even the NHS one wasn’t up to date, I soon found out! One of my best friends lent me her pump when she came to visit and it turned out to be a lifesaver. I pumped for E and it took me just 10 minutes to pump 120ml from one boob, which meant I could give up the formula and use my milk for all supplementation.
His bilirubin continued to rise whilst we were in the hospital. He was given phototherapy for a couple of days and I continued to pump and tried to breastfeed as often as I was allowed (which was every 3 hours on the dot) because he was in the special billi lightbox- but it hurt so, so much. His levels eventually came down, thanks to the light treatment and breast milk from a bottle and we were soon discharged from hospital.
When home, the midwife signed us off at 10 days as there were 'no issues' as he was pooping and weeing well and was slowly gaining his birth weight back and his colour looked better. Most of his early pictures around the home are in black and white because he was so orange. It was heartbreaking for me to see him that colour. My Health Visitor said his weight was fine when she came to visit and did all of the assessments. But I *knew* that nappy output was fine because I was pumping and he was getting bottled breast milk; what I really *needed* was breastfeeding support to be able to feed at the breast. For a further 3 weeks, I went to my GP often about our feeding issues, green poop, projectile vomiting up my bedroom walls, lack of sleep and constant screaming (unless being held), only to be fobbed off, told it was colic/reflux and told 'not to be a martyr' and to switch to bottle feeding. I was accused by the male doctor of having PND, instead of being listened to and supported.
The online groups were so helpful in pointing me towards information to help with latch, different positions, directed me to info on tongue ties and giving me much emotional support. I honestly thought that something so natural and normal to do wouldn't be this hard.
E was still very yellow, so we kept up with the walks in sunshine. I was producing a lot of milk, but E wasn't drinking it from the breast properly (he’d gag, cough and splutter when feeding, then projectile vomit a lot of milk after feeds unless he was upright) and so I got recurrent blocked ducts, blebs and mastitis so many times. Pumping definitely contributed to my mastitis issues due to poor pumping technique, oversupply and E not able to drain the breast properly when he did feed from me.
My nipples were still cracked and bleeding and they were red-raw and shredded. Every single feed was burning and had shooting pains through my breasts at every single feed.
E couldn't settle. He would cry for ages after a feed, regardless if breast or bottle, due to so much air trapped in his tummy and not having a proper seal around the bottle teat (he’d dribble milk out of the sides of his mouth). We got no sleep. I was literally at breaking point and bottle feeding did not make it any better for us at all. Yet, I still went to my Dad’s wedding day, when all I wanted was sleep and try to fix what was wrong with my baby. My face may have shown a bright smile, but inside I was numb. I didn’t want to be there, after over a week in hospital.
I eventually went to my local face to face breastfeeding peer support groups, such as the ones at my local Children's Centre. They all helped me so much with latch, positions, shoulders to cry on as well as an actual HOT cup of tea! It turned out that this would be the only place I’d get a hot cuppa for the next 3 months. We were referred to a lactation consultant at a Children’s Centre that was over 20 miles away and she referred us there and then to hospital to the tongue tie clinic. I was told that E possibly had a posterior tongue tie. It was affecting his feeding and making him gassy, sicky and unsettled. We had the tongue tie cut the same day we went to have it assessed at the hospital. He was 5 weeks old.
Finally, I thought it was an answer to all of our issues!
But, it wasn't.
I was still experiencing extreme pain. I was told to refrain from bottle feeding to allow E to exercise his tongue properly with breastfeeding. We tried using an SNS to supplement his feeds but this didn't help with my pain, so we soon stopped using it. We were both treated for suspected thrush (but the wrong stuff it seems!). Nothing improved. I had one follow up appointment (a week after the procedure) at the hospital, but they thought that my pain was because of the thrush. I battled on for 6 more weeks. 6 more weeks of every single feed being in sheer agony, dreading every single feed and just trying to get through the day. I was emotionally and mentally exhausted with it all. I had mastitis a few more times but with proper research and help, I was finally able to self-treat without having to go back on antibiotics.
E wouldn't take a bottle anymore and would scream at me if one went near him. I dreaded feeding him. I felt trapped. I began to resent him. I hated myself. Then I resented him more for the situation I was in, then I had severe guilt and shame because it wasn’t his fault. It was a vicious cycle of resentment and shame. I was a mess, emotionally, physically and mentally. I was spiralling down fast. E was feeding at least every 1-2 hours throughout the night. I was expressing every night and throughout the day to keep my supply up, which took at least an hour and a half each session with pumping time, washing up and sterilising the pump parts etc. Despite a very good pumping output, I was shit-scared that if I didn’t keep it up, my milk would disappear. I was exhausted and my anxiety was sky-high. I was close to breaking point with the never-ending feed, pump, try with bottle, wash, sterilise, feed, pump routine.
No one but my husband saw me at my lowest. I was screaming at him that I couldn't feed our son, that I didn't want to feed him, but if I didn't, then I would be starving my baby boy because he refused a bottle. I had no idea that I could have used a cup to feed him. I HATED hubby because he couldn’t fix breastfeeding for me, or know what support I really needed, all he kept saying was “it’s ok if we have to go to the bottle” - I resented him for this. This was NOT what I wanted to hear. It was catch 22! I wanted to breastfeed so desperately, but there was no way out that I could see. I couldn't let him starve, right? Everyone was telling me ‘Fed is Best’. He weight was slowly dropping down the percentiles and I was worrying more than ever before.
I eventually relented to allow hubby to feed E, and he took a bottle after hubby tried for days to get him to take one (we researched the gentle approach). He managed it by making sure E wasn’t hungry and allowing him to play with and explore the bottle, slowly drop feeding him my milk. I seriously considered to exclusively pump for all of his milk feeds and switch to a bottle until he was at least on solids. This was at my lowest point; every feed I cried my eyes out and felt like a complete failure as his mum because I wasn't able to breastfeed him- it was the one thing I was so passionate about but couldn't do. I felt like I’d let him down yet again, that I wasn’t good enough to be his mum. I was so low, so guilty, so ashamed, feeling so selfish that I couldn’t keep going. One consolation was that he was still getting my breast milk.
In the end, we researched, asked around and went privately to have E's tongue tie lasered when he was 13 weeks old. Feeding didn't improve for another 6 weeks after the procedure, so he had one bottle of breastmilk for his breakfast feed, another one in the evening so I got some respite from the sore nips and a bottle feed in the middle of the night. I breastfed the rest of the time, but it didn’t start to get better until after that 6 week point. Slowly, but surely, feeding improved little by little. E was nearly 5 months old. Throughout all of this, I felt like I wasn’t a good enough wife either, as I was neglecting A and neglecting the household chores. We were living on junk food, snacks, takeaways and convenience foods. The house was a tip. Feeding E (well, trying to!) literally consumed me and left no room for anything else. I felt so isolated and alone and I really believed that A didn’t understand me, he didn’t care enough about us or what I was going through, which would then swing around to believing that I wasn’t good enough for him or our son and there wasn’t any point in sticking around. They needed someone who cooked, cleaned and was able to give E everything that I couldn’t.
I didn't have mastitis anymore. I didn't have thrush symptoms anymore. E wasn't clamping down on me so much with his gums and bruising me, nor did he keep slipping off. We started to have cranialsacral therapy weekly and continued to get latch support from the breastfeeding support groups. Things were getting better, but it was slow. So slow. I had moments of frustration and anger that things weren’t improving fast enough. I still got blocked ducts regularly, but it was manageable in the shower/bath, but it was a daily chore, and I still got searing pain at letdown which lasted a few minutes during each feed. Breastfeeding and everything connected with it became a chore.
Eventually, I had more and more feeds that were just really uncomfortable rather than agonising pain. In the meantime, my milk supply was in overdrive. I was pumping more than what E needed, so I started donating through the informal milk-sharing network 'Human Milk 4 Human Babies'. E was too old for me to donate to a hospital milk bank at 5 (nearly 6) months, so HM4HB was the way to go. I've donated a total of 96 litres of human milk for other babies in the first year of E’s life and I am really proud of myself for being able to donate. He also started solids around 6 months, which eased the pressure of exclusively feeding him my milk. He LOVED food and took to solids very well, which actually gave me both relief and intense feelings of rejection as he didn’t need my milk so much any more. Baby-led weaning was a super hit! He still breastfed very frequently throughout the night though, and tiredness exasperated the sandpaper and skin-crawling feeling I constantly had when he fed. <>
It was around this time that I realised I needed help and support for what I thought could be postnatal depression, despite hubby trying to get me to see someone sooner. I no longer had E’s feeding issues as a crutch to keep me going each day and as feeding and parenting got easier, my mental health got worse and worse, until I fell into a black hole of depression. I realised that I was E’s carer, not his mother. I was doing all the things I was *supposed* to be doing as his mum, but with detachment and without connection.
I didn’t love my baby.
I didn’t feel that rush of love when I looked at him sleeping.
I was numb.
This realisation really hit me hard. Yes, I cared for E and I would have literally done anything for him, but there was no love there for him.
A was super and took time off work to make sure I could go to my therapy sessions and look after E. The CBT really helped me assess my feelings and develop coping mechanisms. I don’t think it helped to address my triggering memories of E being held down by me and several nurses whilst they attempted to take blood when he had jaundice, nor my dark thoughts that I wasn’t good enough for him, that he didn’t deserve a broken mum and A didn’t deserve a crap wife that couldn’t find the time, energy or effort to cook and clean, and that I should just pack a bag and leave them both. I was never suicidal, but I definitely frequently thought that they’d be better off without me. What CBT did do for me was give me the tools I needed to get up each day, get through each day, to cope and to stay with them.
At E’s first birthday I decided to stop pumping; my thoughts behind this decision was that I'd reached my goal of 1 year of feeding him breast milk and if my supply started to drop because he couldn't get the milk out well enough, then I'd be happy to wean this way. I slowly reduced the amount I pumped over 2 months to the point where we dropped his bottle feeds and replaced them with boob, as I didn't want mastitis again. My last pumping session was the 14th October, 2014, of which I used to make a milk pendant from. I *still* have some milk in my freezer. 🤣 I just can’t let go of it yet. May have to get more jewellery made from it!
We haven't looked back since. My son had breastmilk exclusively from the breast since his 1st birthday. No expressed milk had passed his lips since. He weaned from the breast at just over 4 years old, in October 2017! I still had a quite few issues, such as vasospasms (particularly when cold- so likely Raynauds too), many blocked ducts, painful letdown, and occasionally the odd bleb and discomfort when he was teething through toddlerhood (which was accompanied with horrendous nursing aversion and teeth marks in my areolas), and I had some real adjustments to make in regards to my expectations of nighttime parenting, feeding throughout the night (he still woke frequently right up til he was 3!) and positively guiding his behaviour as he got older, but I had the support from La Leche League GB (I wish I discovered them from the start; we didn’t start attending meetings until E was 14m old!) when it happened to sort it and get my breastfeeding journey back on track.
He is now 6 years old and hasn’t had boob for 2 years after deciding he didn’t need his BooBoo anymore. He’d fallen over and was sobbing his heart out after grazing his knees. I asked if he’d like BooBoo to make him feel better, and he replied, “No mummy, I don’t need BooBoo anymore. I’m ok. I’m a big boy now. I just hurt.” It wasn’t too much of a shock as he’d been dropping feeds and by this point, hadn’t had milk for 3-4 weeks, but I won’t deny that I wasn’t quite ready for it to end when it did. I had a few weeks of mourning! I’m proud that he weaned on his terms, when he was ready. I’m proud that I was able to achieve this for him. I’m proud that I was able to continue, despite what was thrown at us. I AM PROUD OF ME.
Since my pregnancy with baby 2, he’s become very interested in my boobs again... which I’m happy about on one hand but slightly apprehensive as to how he’ll be once his sibling arrives. He’s very touchy-feely, has attempted to latch but failed miserably (my nipple isn’t a bloody straw!) and gave up whilst laughing his head off!
Despite my journey and the experiences we’ve had (including the negative comments and questions “when are you going to give that up then?” and “he’s too old for that now!”), I have absolutely 100% loved breastfeeding. Yes it's been extremely hard at times, I’ve not always enjoyed it, have often hated it too, and I was so close to giving up frequently, but breastfeeding taught me that it’s so much more than just a food source! It has provided comfort and security to my son, it has reconnected us after a busy day, it has even made my parenting journey easier. It has helped me to connect and bond with him and provide him with the emotional and physical connection he needed to thrive, despite my PND and disconnection to him during infancy. Breastfeeding *saved* my mental health. Breastfeeding was a huge part of my journey to becoming the mother that I am today. Breastfeeding saved me.
I believed that I mothered through breastfeeding in the early months as that was all I knew, whilst I was being treated for PND and developing my bond, attachment and love for E. I didn’t know any different- this felt right for me, despite my mental illness. I continued to do so and I am a much calmer and a more gentle parent than I ever imagined I could be. I don't know what I would have done without breastfeeding in those first 4 years of E’s life! Mothering through breastfeeding, from infancy through to pre-school age, has made my journey into motherhood much more smooth as time went on and I accepted that this was the way I wanted to parent.
I am looking forward to the day where he watches his baby brother or sister has “his BooBoo”, knowing that we weaned at an age where he could still remember how to breastfeed, what it tasted like and how good breastfeeding made him feel.
I know that breastfeeding E was the most *hardest* thing I've ever achieved in my life so far and I am so proud of myself and so, so grateful for the *hundreds* of women (literally hundreds!!) that have helped me online in Facebook support groups as well as face to face breastfeeding groups such as LLL East Kent and PSB over the years. I couldn't have continued without them. So, from the bottom of my heart, THANK YOU.
Here’s to baby number 2 and a new breastfeeding journey!
Do I feel scared, anxious, worried about what the future holds? HELL YES.
Will it stop me? HELL NO.
I have the support network around me that I should have had from the start with E. I *know* it’ll be so different second time round, but it doesn’t stop the mum guilt that I couldn’t give E what he needed as an infant. I started counselling when I was around 7-8 weeks pregnant. I’m now 36 weeks pregnant and still receiving counselling therapy weekly. It’s *really* helping to connect me to my inner self, the one that gets hidden away and ignored. It’s addressing my triggering thoughts and memories, my antenatal depression and anxiety. It is helping me to respect and accept the person that I was then despite my illness, but also begin the love the me I was then too; my counsellor said that if my husband could love me at my worst, then I could love me at my worst too and stop beating myself up with my own stick.
I’m finally connecting to this baby (despite my fears) and in turn, it’s helped me to continue bonding with E and I’ve grown to love him even more. I know I have enough love to go around. I know that by connecting to this baby now (like I wasn’t able to with E) that it will benefit all three of us when baby is born, and will continue to build and develop the bond I worked so hard to achieve with E.
I also did some sessions to address my breastfeeding trauma, working with Anna Le Grange, IBCLC and @mindfulbreastfeedingcoach last year, which uses the three-step rewind technique. I found it helped immensely with my triggers and was extremely useful in addressing my breastfeeding fears too. I have slowly learned to forgive the mother that I was then, knowing it was my mental illness that was preventing me from accepting who I was and knowing that yes, I did do my best despite not loving my baby straight away. In fact, I did bloody well against the odds that were pitted against us.
I know I did my absolute best then and I shall be doing my absolute best again this time round, but I shan’t be alone. I have support on my side this time. I won’t be fighting tooth and nail for support and information that should be so easy for any breastfeeding parent to access, because I have it now. I can do this.
I WILL DO THIS.